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Education Opinion

Leadership Transitions: Lessons From Pope Francis

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 31, 2013 4 min read
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Turnover in leadership of schools and school districts is a familiar phenomenon across the country. In 2010, the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA) conducted a survey of 2,000 superintendents from across the country. Only half of the respondents reported that they would still be superintendents in five years. The replacements for these exiting superintendents will be considering entry plans; some will even be requested by the hiring boards to present one. Amidst these changes of leadership, districts will strive to continue the vision and initiatives already underway; others will seek new directions. This issue is not unique to education, though turnover at the top may happen with greater frequency than in private sector Chief Executive Officer positions.

Even in organizations that are bastions of stability, unprecedented turnover at the top can occur. It has just happened in a startling new way in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI retired making way for the election of Pope Francis. The organization had become accustomed to a transition pathway that included the death, funeral, and mourning of the sitting Pope before the choosing of the next Pope began. This time was different. For the first time in 600 years a living Pope retired. There was no death, no funeral, and no mourning period. The transition would be different this time. The world watched this turnover with speculation and interest.

There are three schools of thought when entering the first year of a new position. One calls for the new leader to make few changes and observe, observe, observe. One asserts that the leader should make significant changes quickly while still enjoying maximum support of the so-called “honeymoon” period. The third suggests that the leader stay true to him or herself, making the identity of the leader very visible during the initial days. The latter sets the stage for transparency within decision-making that will follow. It implies clarity and self-knowledge about the things that will not be compromised regardless of the system or district or organization in which one is leading. Pope Francis is one of the world’s most visible leaders and so far he seems to be creating a mini case study for the third approach.

Within hours of his election, news reports began telling his story. He was the first non-European pope, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name “Francis.” In Argentina, he chose to make his own meals and ride the bus rather than use the limousine available to him. He contacted his predecessor immediately after the election and dined with him several days later. His reputation reveals a commitment to social justice and to the poor.

His first actions speak volumes about his desire to maintain humility. On Holy Thursday, he inflamed traditionalist criticism in the ritual of washing feet. The ceremony was traditionally held at a grand basilica in Rome. The washing of men’s feet symbolized Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Setting his own course, Pope Francis’ decision was to go to a youth detention center in Rome and wash the feet of twelve inmates, two of whom were women. Muslims were also represented among the twelve whose feet he washed. He has rejected living in the magnificent papal apartments, opting instead for more moderate accommodations. The symbolism is not lost on those who are observers. These initial decisions are being watched carefully, not unlike with any leader new to his or her post, everyone is watching to see and interpret the choices being made. Who we are is what observers try to uncover through their attention to our actions.

He also spoke directly to leaders about leadership. At his installation mass, he reminded those in power to serve the weakest and use tenderness to inspire hope. It could have been a leadership scholar speaking. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.”

These are his first two weeks in office. What lessons can be extended to superintendents and school leaders?

  • Know yourself and be yourself. If this is not the first work, credibility will not follow. Trust cannot be generated.
  • Your actions communicate your values. Be conscious of what you do. Say what you mean and live it.
  • Every child needs those in power to care and to act on his/her behalf. The weakest ones need us most. Do not forget or neglect them.
  • It is our job to inspire and sustain hope.
  • Do not fear tenderness. It is not weakness.
  • Be among the people. They will respect you more.
  • If power is used in service, it can be humble rather than arrogant.

These are the leadership capacities that are left for us to develop from within. This leader’s success will be measured, in part, by his capacity to hold true to his commitment to serve in the ways he has demonstrated in these first days. There are leadership lessons to be had all around us, not just in leadership books or seminars. This transition offers an opportunity to pause and reflect, to learn more about ourselves, and decide again, who to be as leaders.

Kowalski, Theodore J., McCord, Robert S., Peterson, George J., Young, Phillip I., Ellerson, Noelle M., The American School Superintendent 2010 Decennial Study. (2011). Lanham, Md.: Published in partnership with AASA and Roman & Littlefield
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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.